The Paradoxes of Equality

Unfor­tunately we live in a universe where equality is an even trickier and more complex goal than freedom. By its very nature, equality is rid­den with yet greater inherent contradictions, with yet more intricate para­­doxes. Negative rights (“freedom from”) are less com­­plicated than positive rights and entitlements (“freedom to”). It is eas­ier to draw consistent lines for what people may not do to one another (physical abuse, theft, imprisonment, enslavement, and so forth) than for what we are obliged to do for one another (help in times of need, secure basic subsistence, provide education, healthcare, and so forth). But we have also not­ed that any real measure of freedom must be seen in light of the lived experience of humans and non-human animals, and as such it cannot be reduced to a libertarian defense of negative freedoms. My free­dom dep­ends on the inner workings of your thoughts and emotions, and vice versa.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications.

Furthermore, we have noted a second paradox of freedom: while free­dom is cast in terms of our emancipation from commonly held negative emo­tions which we all avoid during our everyday lives, it is also apparent that said negative emotions regulate our behaviors in ways making society possible in the first place. Without emotions of guilt and shame, it is diff­icult to see how we could make societal life function at all. And only highly functional societies can be expected to develop greater freedom. So freedom within a society always has to build upon un-freedom, upon an increasingly intimate form of self-organizing control. It is as though we were climbing a ladder with the goal of reaching above the ladder itself. But then what would we hold on to?

We have to wrestle with freedom as a common good, as something em­anating from our everyday inter­actions with one another, with our envir­on­ment and our “selves”. Freedom flows not only from institutions, but also from intimate and personal relationships.

Your freedom does not begin where my freedom ends; that’s an illu­sion based upon the under­lying assum­ption that human beings are sealed containers, that we are indivi­duals, in­divisible atoms. But in a behavioral-sci­entific sense, it is clear we are more than individuals, that we are “div­iduals” or “transindividuals”, as des­cribed in The Listening Society. Hence, your free­dom begins not at my imagined outward border, but at the center of my heart.

Once you understand this, you can also see that equality is part and par­cel of freedom’s development as equality determines the nature and quality of our relations. So let’s talk about the paradoxes of equality, and then march quickly to resolve them. I am offer­ing an anatomy of equality and its evolution.

The Four Paradoxes of Equality

Let me go through four fundamental paradoxes of “equality” that make the issue an eternally insolvable problem.


The first paradox of equality is that humans are not equals. As I labored to describe in The Listening Society, there are great developmental differ­ences between us, with some people advancing to higher stages of adult psy­chological dev­elopment than others: some have more complex think­ing, more uni­ver­sal values, more refined relationships to life and exist­ence.

The same holds true in terms of other characteristics: some are health­ier and strong­er, some have more balanced personalities, some are more ind­ust­rious and have greater endurance and tolerance of stress, some have higher IQ, some are more sociable, some are better looking—and some have the opposite traits. At a superficial level, this could have us think that equality in a deeper sense is not possible as our differences and variations of endow­ments will always manifest in our lives and our rela­tionships. But such a defeatist stance will not serve us well; it is, after all, quite appa­rent that different societies have different levels of equality, and hence that equa­lity can develop. Rather, we must venture deeper into an understand­ing of equality to resolve this paradox.


A limited version of the value of equality is the idea of “meritocracy”, or the “equality of opportunity”. According to this ideal, the aim of pur­suing equality is one of removing all obstacles for people to achieve what the traits of their character would “naturally” let them “deserve”. You may re­member Martin Luther King’s echoing voice: “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” That may be a good starting point for equal­ity, but it is cer­tainly not the endpoint. The Martin Luther Kings of today and of the fut­ure must ask for much more. They must be much more analytically strin­gent and radical.

Let’s say for a moment that we really achieved a society in which people are truly “judged by the content of their character”. This would mean that people with more competitive traits would gain more recognition, power, resources—and ultimately happiness—than their more miserably endow­ed fellow citizens. And there would really be no excuses in a perfect meri­to­cracy. You got every opportunity, and you still ended up getting the short end of the stick. You’re a bloody loser and you know it. You can’t blame anyone but yourself. And everybody else blames you as well. You are not judged by distinctions of class, gender or race, but you are still judged. And the en­titled feel even more exalted, yet more deserving. Drawn to its logical con­clusion, King’s vision—so often held almost as a religious tenet of mod­ernity—reveals an inescapably cruel and cynical side.

It’s a meagre vision for society because it ignores the fact that people are not equals. Any deeper equality is not possible unless we add­ress this issue.


To a large extent, equality is about recognition, and you are recognized not only des­pite your race/gender/class, but also because of your abilities to pro­duce things other people want (products, services, elicited emoti­ons). And people will only give you recognition if they are unable to take it from you, i.e. if there is a power balance in place. Cows “give” us milk but receive no recognition because they are powerless in our bovine-opp­ressive soci­ety.

The meritocratic vision of equality still builds upon out­dated, religious (I am tempted to say Protestant) ideas: that you have a soul, and that “God” doles out rewards depending on how pretty you are on the inside. With King, we have—perhaps unsurprisingly—smuggled in a good dose of Luth­er and Calvin.

In reality, of course, no such God exists. And there is no fate that re­wards good character according to a universal measure; no law of Kar­ma, at least not in the traditional sense. People don’t “deserve” anything in any deeper, cosmic sense.

As the ladder of life is strung—as society is “stratified” into higher and lower strata—people simply end up in different social positions as the result of cold, mechanical pro­cesses, some of which orig­inate within each of us and from our own choices and actions, and some of which orig­inate from structures lying far beyond our control. There is really no solid bor­der between the inequality that comes from beyond ourselves, and the one that comes from within (from our psyches, personal traits and behav­iors).

Naturally, not all inequality is always a bad thing, but up to a certain point—a rather high threshold—inequality is painful to people and detri­mental to soc­ieties, whether it originates from people’s inner traits or from unfair collective structures.

We are called, then, to look for an intimately lived and felt equality; one that in turn shapes our relationships in the direction of mutual respect and sol­idarity, caring, even love. Such equality must ultimately be based upon social recognition, that people’s value and quality are genuinely app­rec­iated and honored by others. This and similar arguments have been made by many sociologists in recent years, most notably perhaps by the social theo­rist Axel Honn­eth.[i] This line of thought goes back as far as Hegel (in The Phenomenology of Spirit), who viewed the struggle for re­cognition as a primary driver in history, and it has been theorized not only on the Left, and not only by sociologists—in 2018 none other than Francis Fukuyama published a book titled Identity, which also looks close­ly at the primacy of recognition in society.

But this striving for a de facto equality of recognition, espoused by Hon­neth and others, lands us in yet another paradox, largely missed by the theo­rists of recog­nition. It is, if possible, an even more caustic one.

All humans desire recognition—civic, soc­ial, economic, emotional and sexual. We want to be recognized as worthy citizens, as real people, as com­petent contributors, as good friends and fam­ily members, and as gendered and sexual beings.

But—and this is the paradox that defenders of recognition tend to miss —we only want recog­nition from those who we ourselves value, from those who we our­selves “recognize” as equals or superiors, from the ones we res­pect, admire or desire.

We don’t want to be admired by the ones we look down upon, but by the ones we look up to. We don’t want to be members of a community we don’t respect. We don’t want to have our taste and lifestyle venerated by those we deem to have poor taste and ignoble lifestyles. We don’t want to be validated as beautiful and desirable by those we deem ugly and rep­ulsive. In short, we desire recognition from the recog­nized. And it goes farther than that—we even want only the recognition of those who in turn are recognized by others we in turn recognize. Recognition is a networked tagging game; a game of performances and displays. Recogni­tion repro­duces recognition. Disdain reproduces disdain.

And the eliciting of respect and recognition is not a volitional act on behalf of the beholder. Admiration, attra­c­tion and respect are things that occur automat­ically, as a result of our emotional, social and cultural wir­ing. We can’t help our­selves but to admire the gifted, to desire the beauti­ful, to clamor for the glamorous, to respect the powerful, to be dazzled by the smooth and the cool. And conversely, alas, we cannot help but feel disdain for those we perceive as stupid, ugly, delinquent, weird or imm­oral—dis­dain for the peo­ple who don’t elicit positive emotional responses in us or otherwise don’t provide things we value.

Sure, on a theoretical and impersonal level, we can extend our solidar­ity to the wretched, with citizenship and the vote and human rights. But we won’t choose them as friends; we won’t enter long-lasting and prod­uctive profess­ional partner­ships with them; we won’t invite them to our parties; we won’t miss them; we won’t marry them; we won’t truly love them.

That innocent wish we so often hail as uni­versally human: “I just want to be respected, loved and desired”, has an inescapable dark side, whisp­er­ing under its breath: “I merely want to be respected, loved and de­sired… by the ones I respect, love and desire”. And we often respect, love and de­sire someone simply because other people seem to.

Ours is a tragic universe, where universal love cannot be the simple an­swer. Any attempt to be genuinely loving of the unloved will prove unsus­tain­able. Even if you let one alcoholic beggar live at your house, you will pay a significant price for doing so, and you will have to exclude the next beggar who comes knocking. And the exchange between you and the begg­­ar will be an act of charity rather than a genuine and mutual offering of res­pect. The whole thing is set up to create large groups of the unwant­ed, the disrespected, the untouchable.

This cruel mechanism of social reality lays its verdict on all of us; as not­ed earlier, we are all winners and losers, in different contexts and to differ­ent extents. We all know both sides, and we all know the intense pain of rejection, of withheld recognition and cold indifference. And we all know, perhaps apart from the uncond­itional love of mothers for their children, that all that matters in life, at the most sensitive and intimate level, can be taken away from us. Hence, we cannot give our care and recognition freely.

If we play our cards wrong, if we convene with the lonely, the failures, the nerds, with those who cannot offer us new and productive outlets for life, this will not only create limited rewards for us; it will spill over and affect how others judge our status and standing in society.

Hence, we stay clear of those who have little recognition, in turn offer­ing them no re­cogni­tion so that we can gain the recognition we so desire. The wounds of the lonely and the despised are as frightening and con­tagious as lepro­sy.


Last, but not least, there is the disturbing tendency of humans to envy those who gain the kinds of recognition we our­selves long for. This creates another paradox of equality.

We withhold our recognition for reasons of envy. Such envy can show up for different reasons: that we feel competition for the scarce resource of atten­tion and recognition, that we are invested in another story about real­ity (why should the footballer be recognized when great poets like “my­self” are ignored; why should brilliant Marxists be admir­ed when in truth lib­ertarian economics are the best; why should great intell­ectuals be hon­ored when “I” am so much kinder and more spiritual?)—or that we feel some­one’s recognition was acquired through undue priv­ileges, that “the fight was fixed”. Or simply that we find someone morally un­deser­ving: why should such a wretched person be so lucky?

The strange and ubiquitous hunger of the human soul, the hunger for recognition, makes the fair and even distribution of recog­nition yet more acrimonious. Envy is an often under­estimated force of hum­an soc­ieties and interactions, and as discussed earlier, it generally goes unnoti­ced by the envier him­self. It leads us to give unhelpful and unsol­ic­ited advice, to slander and diminish the gifts and bea­u­ties of one another. It works as a subtle but per­vasive counterforce to human dignity and equ­al­­ity. It gets in the way of any struggle for deeper equality.

I have thus offered four paradoxical natures of equality: first, that we are not de facto equal; second, that even a perfect meritocracy with no struct­ural dis­crim­ination reproduces an exacer­bated felt inequality; third, that all equal­ity is based upon viscerally felt and embodied recognition, but that we will only seek the recognition of the recognized, and thus only offer true recog­nition to limited segments of our social surroundings—and last, the strange and subtle presence of envy.

This might all look rather hopeless. Yet, equality varies over societies and epochs. Equality can be deve­loped; it can evolve. At the most uni­versal level, equality is deepened when the games of life are developed.

Recognition cannot be forced to be given, nor can it be redistributed like material wealth, nor can it be force-fed to the starving. But, again, the fact that equality is paradoxical, and perhaps cannot be “achieved” in any absol­ute sense, doesn’t mean it cannot develop and grow.

Deeply felt equal­ity is an emergent property of society’s self-organ­iza­tion, of its power relat­ions, of people’s opportunities, of second chances given, of freely avail­able information, of education and feedback processes governing peo­ple’s lives, of people’s degree of emotional and social intel­l­ig­ence, of people’s physical stature, and so forth. And the depth of our equ­ality affects all aspects of society—just as inequality harms every aspect of society and ultimately limits our freedom.

The issue is not, then, to “achieve” equality, but to tackle its paradoxes more intelligently; to work around them with wide and deep-reaching mea­s­ures.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.


[i]. Honneth, A., 1992/1996. Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Oxford: Polity Press.